Sacred Music for a Sacred Space 2016 Program Notes

Program notes for Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s Sacred Music for a Sacred Space concert on March 23 and Good Friday, March 25, 2016 at St. Paul’s Basilica. Notes by writer and lecturer Rick Phillips.

Artistic Director Noel Edison has always enjoyed the combination of Renaissance with contemporary music in a concert program.  For him, it’s the similarity between the openness and simplicity of the structure of these compositions that works so well together.

William Byrd (c.1540–1623) was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, the small group of clergy and musicians assigned to the English monarch. Although a devout Roman Catholic (for which he was persecuted in Reformation England), Byrd composed for both the Catholic and Anglican services. In 1593, he moved from London to Essex, accepting a job with Sir John Petre, also a closet Catholic. Lovingly referred to by choristers as “Byrd in Four,” the Mass for Four Voices was the first of three mass settings Byrd composed in Essex, probably for clandestine services. After this one, he wrote masses in three and five parts. The ancient mass text, ranging from dark sadness to brilliant joy, seemed to inspire Byrd. He wrote, “There is such a profound and hidden power in sacred words, that to one thinking upon things divine, and earnestly and diligently pondering them, the most suitable of all musical measures occur (I know not how) as of themselves, spontaneously.” Noel says, of this personal  favourite,  “The mass captures the sentiment of Holy Week and the Mendelssohn Singers do it justice.”

The Spanish composer Cristóbal de Morales (c.1500–1553) studied in Rome as a member of the papal choir before returning to Spain and spending his life as a church musician. As Noel states, “His music is gorgeous and was justifiably popular in his day, reaching far and wide across the Spanish empire, including Mexico, Peru and Guatemala.” In 1994, the best-selling album Officium was released – a collaborative effort between Norwegian saxophone player Jan Garbarek and the early music vocal group The Hilliard Ensemble. Combining ancient chant and Renaissance polyphony with the impromptu sax improvisations of Garbarek, the album sold over a million copies worldwide. Parce mihi, Domine by Morales was featured on three tracks, each one with a different improvisation by Garbarek. In  these TMC concerts sax player John Johnson will improvise.

Leonard Enns (b.1948) is a Canadian composer, teacher and choral director, the founding director of the Da Capo Chamber Choir based in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. Commissioned by the TMC, I Will Lift up Mine Eyes is a setting of Psalm 121, encouraging us to put our faith in the Lord when faced with danger and difficulty. Scored for double choir with alto saxophone, these performances mark its world premiere. (Read Leonard Enns’ own commentary on this composition.)

Patrick Hawes (b.1958) is a British composer, conductor and organist who lives on the coast of rural Norfolk, England. Much of Hawes’ music is inspired by a love of nature, expressing a pastoral, reflective musical style that has connected with a large international audience. Noel claims, “It’s simple, straightforward, to-the-point and very effective. I like it!”

The simple musical style of Hawes’ Relexionem reflects the meaning of the contemplative text: “What is true is beautiful and what is beautiful is good.” This work dates from 2004 although this arrangement for cello and double choir was made a decade later. Quanta Qualia, Hawes’ most popular work, is a setting of a text by his brother that expresses a deep longing for the joys of heaven. Featured on Hawes’ 2004 album Blue in Blue, Quanta Qualia became an instant hit on the British classical music charts.

Timothy Corlis (b.1972) is a Canadian composer and former member of the Elora Festival Singers. In 2012, the TMC commissioned Corlis to compose a companion piece for Svyati by the late English composer Sir John Tavener (1944–2013). Noel Edison stipulated that the new work employ a solo cello part, like Svyati, and that the text be John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Noel says, “Tim is a gifted choral composer and has written an effective, poignant, memorable piece.” When the work received its world premiere by the TMC on Good Friday, 2013, it received resounding applause and a standing ovation.

U.S. composer Eric Whitacre (b.1970) studied composition at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas before earning a Master’s degree at the Juilliard School in New York. One of today’s most popular choral composers, Whitacre’s music is often built on suspensions, when a note from one chord is suspended over into the next, creating tension. But where in traditional harmony, the tension is then released, in the music of Whitacre it is often maintained, or as the U.S. writer and composer Andrew Larson has written, “… merely to suit the composer’s fascination with sound.” Her Sacred Spirit Soars, with text by Charles Anthony Silvestri (b.1965), was composed in 2002.

Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, broadcaster, teacher, host and music tour guide.

You are welcome to use excerpts from these notes for your concert program or for educational purposes. If you do, please credit both Rick Phillips and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Also please advise TMC by email: Thank you.